Nothing Lasts For Ever: Even the most Glittering Reign / DR.Israel Bar-Nir

Even the Longest, the Most Glittering Reign Must Come to an End Someday
24 February 2011
The turmoil in the Middle East both above and below the surface, is yet another reminder of that truism. As for the question what awaits us in the future, it is a little premature to hazard any predictions. Yogi Bera, the legendary baseball coach, was not a pundit. Neither did he pretend to be a political maven or a political leader. Yet his statement It ain’t over ‘til it’s over makes more sense than all the analyses of the current situation in the Arab world and Egypt in particular, as well as the predictions filling the media these days.

It is not yet over. No question about that. For starters, once the initial euphoria is over in Egypt for example, the masses will still face a harsh reality of an economy at an impasse. Moreover, as a rule, military councils are not the ideal conduit to democratization. Thus, even if Egypt (or other Middle East countries for that matter) does not degenerate to become an Iran like system, the touted democratization, is almost certain to fall short of expectations. More often than not, revolutionary transitions tend to follow the French dictum Plus ça Change, Plus C'est la Même Chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). It is up to the experts to use their crystal balls and form conjectures about the reaction of the street in Egypt and the other Middle East countries if that will be the case.

Rather than indulge in speculations about the future, apart from the general observation that What Has Been Will Not Be Again, the focus here will be on the present and to some extent on the past.

I The Bush Heritage

Going into the third year of his Presidency, Obama adopted yet another part of his predecessor’s heritage. While in the main stream media in the US there’s no mention of this fact, there’s no shortage of laudatory coverage of Obama’s sudden emergence as a champion of the cause of democracy, individual freedom and human rights - “handling of the crisis” in Egypt is the journalistic parlance. Things appear differently in the foreign press, the influential German weekly Der Spiegel (,1518,743994,00.html), is an example.

During the first two years in office Obama’s international policy was rife with confrontations with democratic allies of the US and extended hands to autocratic adversaries. Democracy and the quest for freedom and other basic human rights were conspicuously absent from Obama’s agenda. In his 2009 Cairo speech Obama went a long way to distance himself from his predecessor:

I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.

That was a clear message to one and all that the era of democracy promotion by the US is over. That position of President Obama was welcome by his constituency who despised President Bush. His call to spread the Western values of democracy and human rights was deemed an expression of US arrogance and unilateralism. Some even saw in it a form of neo imperialism

President Obama’s did a complete about face in his final speech on the occasion of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. The eloquence, as usual, was compelling. He lauded the protesters who, at a great personal risk, went to the streets to demand a free government. He cited the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Unfortunately it was a little too late. This piece of oratory came after three weeks of Egypt’s population struggle for democracy. During these three weeks the leader of the free world performed several flip flops. Rather than lead, he watched the events unfold just as you and I did. Obama acted like a gambler at a casino who waits for the wheel to stop spinning before placing his bet. He did not push, he did not nudge, and until no doubt was left about Mobarak’s imminent fall, he refrained from calling for the autocrat’s resignation. The people in the street led. Obama reacted.

In comparison, President Bush’s speech delivered in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2008, was made when Hosni Mobarak was at the peak of his power. Bush did not mince words in his appeal to the leaders in the region to take the future into their hands and "treat their people with the dignity and respect they deserve,”

Obama was blind-sided by the events and his “handling of the situation” reflected a total unawareness of what was really going on below the surface in the region. The experts and the mavens were no better. The unfolding events keep the turmoil alive and no one sees when and how it will end. In the meantime the US establishment is still clueless as before, and with the new crisis developing in Lybia, Obama is back to the “waiting game”. As long as there’s a chance that the Gadafi regime prevails, Obama is not going to risk making a stand one way or the other.

II Beware of What You Wish for as You May Get It

Given what is known about the region and the history of the peoples living in it, it is legitimate to question whether democracy is really a good thing. Although this is reminiscent of the joke on the theme of “is it good for the Jews or is it bad for the Jews”, the question whether democratization is necessarily a positive development in the cultural environment of the Arab world deserves a serious discussion.

In the western mind the term "democracy" goes hand in hand with the image of a free, pluralistic, and secular society. Society where the individual enjoys unalienable rights - among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But is that really always the case? Does "democracy" necessarily always entail "universal rights" and other benefits associated with the word? In its narrow definition a democracy is a form of government. A government can have a constitution, a law, and a judiciary as well as conduct elections, and still deny its citizens the basic freedoms associated with the term “democracy.” By a conservative estimate at least three quarters of the member nations of the UN are Democracies In Name Only - DINO, and the majority among these do not even bother to pretend.

People who have spent all their life in a democratic environment often fail to realize that elections or constitution by themselves do not make a democracy. That rather than be a form of government, democracy is a way of life. People who live in a democratic environment tend to regard “democracy” and “human rights” as if the two are inseparable. But that’s not the case. Many laws, customs and traditions encountered in the countries of Western Europe would be deemed “undemocratic” by the average American, yet no one will for a moment doubt the democratic character of any of these countries. As an extreme example, Switzerland was far more democratic than the majority of the member nations of the UN even when women there had no right to vote (until the late 1960s).

Thus, when discussing “democracy” in the Arab World the goal should be promotion of the basic human rights associated with it rather than the formal aspects which often amount to no more than going through the motions. So far, the only Muslim countries which bear a semblance to a democracy are Turkey and Indonesia and both these cases are still a far cry from what is taken for granted in the Western democracies. Unless the issue of basic human rights is addressed seriously, an Iranian style regime is a far more likely result of the democratization in the Arab world than a genuine democracy.

III An Unfriendly Obsession

One of the most striking things about the uprising in Egypt was the absence of pro-Palestine placards. As Egypt watcher Amr Hamzawy put it, in Tahrir Square and elsewhere there were no signs saying "death to Israel, America and global imperialism" or "together to free Palestine". Instead, this revolt was about Egyptian people's own freedom and living conditions.

Yet in a pro Egypt demonstration in London on Saturday, Feb. 12, there was a sea of Palestine placards. "Free Palestine", they said, and "End the Israeli occupation". The speakers had trouble getting the audience excited about events in Egypt, having to say on more than one occasion: "Come on London, you can shout louder than that!" Yet every mention of the word Palestine induced a kind of Pavlovian excitability among the attendees. They cheered when the P-word was uttered, chanting: "Free, free Palestine!"

The passage above, appeared in an Australian journal last week (

Until the Palestinians are given back their rights we're going to have instability throughout the Middle East, That is central to everything.

A statement by John Pilger, a leading Australian journalist living in London, on ABC TV channel (Feb. 15).

Events in Egypt mustn’t “distract us” from the Palestinian issue, cautions the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton. It is a good question whether the more recent events in Lybia would also be deemed a mere “distraction” by the Lady.

These are but three examples of how obsessed with the Palestinian issue the world has become. The Arab world is undergoing an unprecedented and totally unexpected political upheaval, and the only thing on people’s minds is the Palestinian issue.

In fact Ms. Ashton had it right about the distraction, but in the wrong direction - rather than the turmoil in the Arab world distracting attention from the Palestinian issue it is the obsessive preoccupation with the Palestinian issue that distracts attention from the real issues.

I had no idea you were so

I had no idea you were so erudite. I am more than impressed.

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